England and India recently finished a four-match Test series and it was a dramatic one, with momentum swinging both ways. The First Test was set up for a close finish on the final day before the rain unfortunately washed it out, and England then bounced back from losing the Second Test to a comprehensive victory in the next game. The Fourth Test was another exciting contest, and India had to come back from behind to take it. Although a fifth game was scheduled and had to be cancelled due to Covid cases in the Indian camp, this still did not detract away from the fact that it had been a remarkable series. My analysis will focus on lessons for England going forward, ahead of an important upcoming Ashes series.
In the batting department, England are still over reliant on Joe Root. So far this year, his form has been unbelievable and arguably the best of his career, racking up century after century. This continued into this series with another three hundreds and he was the top run scorer by far with 564 in total. Yet, when Root does not perform, this England batting unit can struggle. This was noticeably clear in Sri Lanka and India, and continued into the English summer. Apart from the Third Test which was won convincingly, in the other three games England failed to pass 550 runs over the course of two innings. Such a statistic is concerning especially for the upcoming Ashes series, where England will have to score big. In Australia, you ideally need to post at least 400 in the first innings to have a good chance of winning. Root can help towards this of course, but he at times he needs more support from those around him.
The lack of rhythm in the batting department has been reflected by the introduction of two new batsmen at the top of the order, Haseeb Hameed and Dawid Malan, in place of Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley. These two have both played Test cricket for England before. Hameed burst onto the scene for the England tour of India in 2016, and started well alongside Alastair Cook. But since then he has had some injury problems and lost some form, but runs this summer led to a recall. And Malan of course played in the last Ashes series in Australia and showed Test match capabilities, before being dropped the following English summer for poor form. A mainstay in the shorter formats, having come back into the Test arena he has done reasonably well again, with a good partnership with Root in the Third Test. Hameed too has shown glimpses, particularly with his 63 in the Fourth Test, and will hope that he can form a solid opening partnership with Rory Burns. Burns himself did not have the best of series after performing well against New Zealand earlier in the summer, but has shown enough to be starting in the Ashes.
In the middle order, England also have a number of important things to consider. The wicket keeper position, for a start, is still uncertain. Jonny Bairstow was recalled in the middle order but did not keep wicket for the first three Tests, and instead Jos Buttler continued with the gloves. Bairstow then kept for the Fourth Test with Buttler out, and did a decent job, and depending on the balance of the side going forward England may only be able to pick one. This will especially be the case if Ollie Pope performs, having been in and out of the side in recent years, and he did well in the Fourth Test with a fine knock of 81. Moeen Ali has also been recalled after two years away, and this also impacts the set up of the team, since if he continues to play, then England will not need to play an ‘out and out’ spinner like Jack Leach, and so can play another fast bowler. He also provides depth in the batting department, and so hopefully he can rediscover his form from the start of his Test career.
With regards to the bowling, Ollie Robinson was the leading wicket taker for England with 21 scalps and has started his Test career well. When it comes to the seamers overall, however, England can lack variety. James Anderson, Craig Overton, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes all bowl at a similar pace, and this means that on flat pitches it can be tough at times. Sam Curran does bring something else as a left armer, and Mark Wood has the extra pace, but when they do not play, as in the Fourth Test, the bowlers are often too similar to each other. This was part of the reason why India racked up 466 in the second innings, and were able to swing the balance of the game, coming behind from a first innings deficit. And in Australia, flat pitches can be expected. There are times in the series where England could be under pressure as a result. Moeen Ali, for instance, struggled Down Under last time, and Anderson and Broad did too, and will be down on pace from four years ago as well. This means that Mark Wood especially with the pace will need to perform or else England could come up short.
In general, apart from the Third Test, the games against India were closely fought contests. England look close to being a solid Test outfit, but at times they need to be more ruthless. This was particularly apparent in the Second Test, where they went into the final day as favourites, with India having a small lead and only four wickets in hand. Yet, having got two early wickets to begin with, England went on the defensive, thinking about saving runs instead of being positive, and a last wicket partnership between Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah swung the momentum back towards India. England were then bowled out cheaply, compounding a miserable day. And they still drop too many catches, and at stages in the Fourth Test had these chances been taken, then it could have been a different story. If Root can get his tactics right, and the rest hold their catches, then England have the ability to turn draws and losses into wins soon.
Overall, this England Test team has its strengths, but is far from the finished package, and this series proved that. Root is a class batsman, currently playing to the peak of his powers, but he needs support, and the new top three especially have to get the team off to good starts. In the middle order, the set up has to be correct, with the right balance between all-rounders and ‘out and out’ batsmen, plus the wicket keeper position needs to be nailed down. And in the bowling, Robinson has shown great promise but in Australia, England will need some variety to succeed on flat pitches, and similar fast-medium right arm over seamers could struggle. These are the things that they have to consider ahead of an important winter, as they will attempt to regain the urn for the first time in four years.